Ever been told that ‘time is a healer’ at the end of a particularly seismic loss or break-up and wanted an exact timeframe to stick on it? Will it be weeks? Months? Years? Then slowly it dawns on you that you’re not healing at all – not really. Changing is a better word for it. Emotionally, you’re left with a limp of sorts.
Ali and Ava are both limping in writer-director Clio Barnard’s bruised peach of a realist romance set among Bradford’s windswept terraces. They’re recovering from relationship traumas and slowly figuring out they are when now that their past certainties have disappeared. The future is suddenly a blank canvas that they’d never intended to have to fill.
Ava (Claire Rushbrook, hitting her Secrets and Lies form) has reached her fifties in a crisis of confidence. She has an abusive and now deceased ex behind her, whose memory is guarded by her grown-up son, Callum (Shaun Thomas), like a snarling pitbull. The grief is complex: Callum’s dad was a total shit but Ava is desperate to shield him and his sister from the fact. There are also five grandkids to think about.
She works in a school, but, as she’s constantly correcting people in a sign of her frayed confidence, she’s a classroom assistant not a teacher. It’s outside the building that she meets beanie-clad Ali (Four Lions’ Adeel Akhtar, a winning mix of warm and raw) in a rainy meet-cute of sorts. He’s a British-Pakistani man dealing with his own loss and the disintegration of his marriage. When he gives Ava a lift back to her rough Bradford estate, you can feel the chill of their shared loneliness lifting. They’re soon bonding over the Buzzcocks and squabbling over whether or not you can dance to country music. It’s the glue that gradually bonds them, and the soundtrack is a drunken jukebox of Dylan, Daniel Avery, Irish folk and Sylvan Esso tunes.
Ali & Ava is all set in a recognisable Clio-Barnard-iverse that’ll feel instantly familiar to anyone familiar with her work. There’s a nod or two to the hard-scrabble, horse-and-cart existence of The Selfish Giant, as well as the sorrows and formal daring of The Arbor. But this is her most welcoming film so far, spearheaded by two soulful, likeable performances. Rushbrook anchors it all as the big-hearted Ava, while Akhtar’s jovial vibes and ready zingers soften a lingering melancholy that Barnard eventually dispels altogether in a big hug of a finale. It’s cheesy, sure, but it’ll leave you with a spring in your step.
Out in UK cinemas Mar 4, 2022